Wednesday, November 19, 2014


The Legend of a Legacy

     A century ago tonight, a political legend was born.  None of our county's congressmen, not even the indomitable George M. Troup, nor the incomparable Alexander Hamilton Stephens, have surpassed the lifelong legacy of Congressman Carl Vinson of Milledgeville.  For fifty years and one month, Vinson represented the citizens of the 6th and 10th Congressional Districts of Georgia with unwavering tenacity, dutiful honor, and distinguished patriotism.  His contributions to the people of Laurens County and to the nation as a whole are no less than monumental.

     Carl Vinson, one of seven children of Edward S. Vinson and Annie Morris Vinson, was born on November 18, 1883 in Milledgeville, Georgia.  As a young man, Carl was a good student and a born story teller.   After completing his classes at Middle Georgia Military and Agricultural College during the day, he worked in Culver and Kidd's Drug Store and two other department stores in town.  He once supervised the distribution of an Atlanta Paper throughout the town, for which he earned a paltry $15.00 a week.

     At the turn of the 20th Century, young Carl became interested in studying the law.  He read law under the supervision of Baldwin County Court Judge Edward Hines.  He enrolled in law school at Mercer University in 1900 and graduated two years later.  After taking the oath of admission to the bar, Vinson accepted Judge Hines' invitation to form the partnership of Hines and Vinson. With the benefit of Judge Hines' influence, Carl Vinson became Solicitor of the County Court of Baldwin County in 1904. He was reappointed to that position in 1906.

     In 1909, Carl Vinson was first elected to public office as a State Representative from Baldwin County.  At the age of twenty-seven and during only his second term in office, Vinson was elected Speaker Pro Tempore of the House of Representatives, a prestigious honor to anyone of any age.  Rep. Vinson was denied a third term in the House following the reapportionment of Congressional districts following the 1910 Census.  Vinson supported the transfer of Baldwin County to the 6th District and into a district where the major population center was in Augusta.  Voters resented his actions and turned him out of office by a scant five votes.  It was the only election that he would ever lose, but it was one that may have turned his life around forever.  Vinson, not through with politics by any means, accepted an appointment as Judge of Baldwin County Court, in which he had previously served as solicitor.

     Following the death of Augustus O. Bacon, a United States Senator from Georgia, in 1914,  6th District Congressman Thomas Hardwick, of Sandersville, announced his candidacy for the vacant seat.  Vinson, unsatisfied with being a jurist in a inferior court, announced his intention to return to legislative service, this time at a national level.  Vinson easily won the election to fill Hardwick's remaining term and to a full second year term beginning in January 1915.  On November 3, 1914, Judge Vinson took the oath of office and became Congressman Carl Vinson, a position that he would hold for longer than anyone else in history until his retirement.  Cong. Vinson's only serious opposition came in 1918, when he was challenged by Populist leader Thomas E. Watson of McDuffie County.  Vinson won a close election over Watson, who was thought to be politically finished, but  soon won an election to the U.S. Senate. 

     During his second term in Congress, Vinson was appointed to the House Naval Affairs Committee.  The appointment was unusual in the fact that the congressman's district was no where near any large body of water and there were no naval installations within the district either.  During the early days of the country's involvement in World War I, Vinson made an electrifying speech before Congress espousing President Woodrow Wilson's declaration of war.  From the very beginning of his congressional career, Vinson became a proponent of building a bigger and better naval force. He maintained that he would like to see the fruits of his labor in Congress and bases and ships were visible evidence of his work.

     In 1925, President Calvin Coolidge appointed Congressman Vinson to the Morrow Board. The Board was formed following the court martial of Billy Mitchell, who criticized the Defense Department for their lackadaisical attitude for a strong air force program.  By 1923, all of the Democratic members of the Naval Affairs Committee were no longer in office, leaving Vinson as the senior Democratic member.  Acknowledging his expertise and aptitude for military matters, the committee chose Vinson to author many of the board's main recommendations, which included the establishment of an Air Corps and increased funding for building more planes and training more pilots and ground crews.

     The Congressional redistricting following the 1930 Census forced Vinson to return to the 6th Congressional District. When two incumbent Congressmen were placed within his district, one of them being Congressman William W. Larsen of Dublin, Vinson had to take action to avoid a highly contested election for the first time since 1918.  Congressman Larsen retired and the other fellow congressman died before the primary election in the summer of 1932.  

     But then, and apparently out of nowhere, a new candidate emerged. It would become the second most contested election campaign of Vinson's career.  It would also be an election which would have the most impact on Laurens County.  Judge R. Earl Camp of Dublin announced his candidacy to unseat the popular congressman from Milledgeville. In a letter published in Army-Navy Air Force Journal in February 1961, Judge Camp wrote to Cong. Vinson and said, " I am going to give you hell, I mean nothing but merry hell, and I don't mean maybe.  I am going to take the flesh, bone, marrow, hide, and hair off you."  Vinson refused Judge Camp's offers to debate the issues.   Camp was faced with overwhelming challenges. Vinson had become popular in national circles for his work on improving national defense.  He always made sure that members of his district were taken care of with their share of federal programs, a practice that would affect Laurens County in many ways in the decades to come.

     Vinson canvassed the entire district in the hot summer months leading up to the September  Democratic primary, speaking in every town in Laurens County.  Judge Camp struck back with faultfinding criticisms.  He belittled  the very core of Vinson's platform, a powerful U.S. Navy.  The strategy didn't work.   Vinson garnered nearly 65% of the vote in defeating Judge Camp, who managed to carry only four counties out of the district's eighteen, including the judge's home county of Laurens.

Before the 1932 election, Vinson was made chairman of the Naval Affairs Committee. He would serve in that office until 1947 when the committee merged with the Military Affairs Committee to form the House Armed Services Committee.  Under Vinson's leadership in the1930s, the United States naval force was essentially rebuilt.    Congressman Vinson was a workaholic when it came to being a congressman. He was in his office well before 8:00 a.m on most days and spent his nights reading nearly every scrap of newspapers, books and reports as they related to the work of his committee.  In 1938 and again in 1940, Cong. Vinson authored and ushered through Congress the Naval Expansion Acts which helped to prepare the country for the inevitable second World War.  His efforts went somewhat un-applauded until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

     At the beginning of World War II, Carl Vinson was one of the most powerful men in Georgia and in the nation.  He had served longer in Congress than any other Georgian and had been a member of the House Naval Affairs Committee longer than any other Congressman in the country's history. From his Washington office, Congressman Vinson led the civilian effort to win the war on  two oceans.  He constantly pushed for more ships and more personnel. In the end, Vinson's efforts to build the greatest navy in the world were finally and wholeheartedly endorsed by the Congress and the President.  As the war came to a close, Vinson made it clear that the country should not and must not scrap the country's naval force like it did following World War I.  He was somewhat successful though many ships which were no longer necessary were sold to private companies for conversion into civilian ships and for scrap.

     It was during the World War II years that Congressman Vinson's lasting legacy to Laurens County began.  When county farmers lost their work force to the war effort and county leaders were denied an application to establish a prisoner of war camp here, Congressman Vinson stepped in and approved the transfer of some of the German and Italian soldiers incarcerated at Camp Wheeler in Macon to a camp in Dublin in the summer of 1943.  For three summers the prisoners filled the void left by the hundreds of farm workers who were in military service.

     Right in the middle of the war Congressman Vinson wanted to make a lasting contribution to the citizens of the county who had stood behind him for many years. Vinson envisioned the establishment of a naval scarlet fever research hospital on the outskirts of Dublin. Still today some question the location of a naval facility more than 120 miles inland.  The answer is simple.  Dublin needed the economic shot in the arm that a hospital would generate.  As many as one thousand people and a greater number of jobs were generated by the establishment of the hospital here in January 1945.  The facility became part of the Veteran's Affairs Department in 1948.   The hospital was renamed the Carl Vinson VA Medical Center in honor of the man who was responsible for the location of the facility which has a profound impact on Laurens County.

     Ancillary to the location of the naval hospital was the location of an airport to facilitate the transportation of patients and personnel into the hospital. The airport was eventually turned over to the county and has been an important economic tool and recreational facility for more than sixty years.  Obviously important in the location of the two facilities were the vast number of support jobs that were necessary to serve the civilian and military personnel working at the hospital.  New homes were built by the hundreds to house families who were moving here from all parts of the country. Even local citizens built new homes with the security of their new found employment.

     In the post war years, the Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon began the transition to dissolve the union of the Army and Air Force into two separate branches.  Incumbent in that plan was the necessity to establish a separate military academy for the training of the finest officers and pilots in the country.  One of the finalist communities to house the new Air Force Academy was Laurens County.  Vinson, whose influence extended mainly to naval affairs, wanted to place the facility in Laurens County.  When the naval and military affairs committees merged and Vinson was not elected chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, his plan was averted.  Had he been chosen chairman, it begs the question, "what might have been?"  

     As the Cold War began to heat up, military planners began a massive base construction program to stem the tide of Communism throughout the world.  A plan was made to construct a base on the elevated plateaus of the Buckeye District of northeastern Laurens County and neighboring Johnson County.  Excitement was rampant through out the county.  The government planned to establish an Air Force base to house a pride of the fleet, the legendary long range bomber, the B-52.    The news of a  base electrified some because of the economic jolt it would bring to the local economy.  Others feared that it would bring the county on the fringes of a target in the sight of a Russian "A bomb."  The plans didn't turn out like Congressman Vinson had hoped.  The base was closed even before it was built.  

    In the 1950s,   President Dwight Eisenhower began to resurrect the idea of a national interstate highway system.  The network of roads was designed to allow motorists to travel at high speeds with little impediments along their way.  The roads were also designed to allow the military to move rapidly throughout the country.  Georgia was susceptible to an attack because of her large number of military installations.  Interstate Highway 16 was designed to run from Macon in the center of the state to Savannah at the coast, tying in the air base at Warner Robins with Ft. Stewart near Hinesville.  The original route of the highway was to have run north of Dublin nearer the Central of Georgia Railroad, which ran through McIntyre, Toombsboro, and Tennille.  A subsequent modification brought the highway closer to Dublin.  In 1962, Soperton's Jim Gillis, Chairman of the Georgia Highway Department, and Dudley's R.L. Hogan, businessman and President of the Bank of Dudley, enlisted the aid of Congressman Vinson to move the route even further south.  Gillis, Hogan, and Dale Thompson, county attorney for Laurens County, visited with Congressman Vinson in his office and asked him to move the new highway to benefit more of the citizens of his district.  Vinson took the proposal to President John F. Kennedy.  After a five minute presentation, Cong. Vinson emerged and announced, "Gentlemen, you have your road."  Just like that with a handshake, Interstate 16 became an integral part of our county's infrastructure for centuries to come.  

   When a bitter dispute arose over the issue of a new county courthouse in 1962, Congressman Vinson stepped in and saved the day.  Voters disagreed over whether or not to build a new courthouse on the courthouse square or at another site in town or simply to keep the old courthouse and renovate it.  When a bond issue failed to provide the funds to build a new courthouse, the county commissioners turned to Carl Vinson for help.  Vinson convinced his fellow law makers to appropriate funds from a newly created federal program designed to aid towns and cities with urban renewal projects.  In doing so, the program funding half the cost of the construction of the present Laurens County courthouse.  In the summer of 1964, Congressman Vinson appeared at the dedication of the new courthouse, the first federally funded county courthouse in the United States.

   Carl Vinson's final legacy to Laurens County came later that year. In one of his last beneficial acts in office, Carl Vinson was enlisted by Elizabeth Moore, his old friend and director of the Laurens County Library, to help the citizens of Laurens County to build a modern library to replace the antiquated Carnegie Library building.  Vinson came through again.  With the aid of the same federal program, Vinson was able to secure the necessary funds to complete the project.

     Carl Vinson died on June 1, 1981.  During his life time of service to our county, district and nation, he was a stalwart for a strong national defense and was a champion for the members of his district.  The next time you pass by the VA Hospital, drive down the interstate, or check out a book at the Laurens County Library, stop and, just for a moment, give thanks to the memory of Carl Vinson.

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